“Tell me the Light story, grandfather.”
“‘Tell me the Light story,’” the old Kaarme Phry repeated, his tone lightly teasing as he tucked his young charge in. “It’s always the Light story with you.”
“Father said it was our story.”
“Oh, aye, and so it is sade. I can only hope that....”
Blinking himself out of his reverie, the aged man patted his grandson’s still developing crest of horn and bone. “Ah, never you mind, young one. You must allow an ancient such as myself some time to let his wits wander.”
The boy bit his lip for a moment, and then smiled up at his caretaker with the perfect sincerity that can only be managed by the young or innocent. “But I’m here to help you!”
“So you are, my boy, so you are. But the story… I tell it different from your father, so listen carefully.” Composing himself, the old man began. “In the beginning there was Nothing. No moon, no stars, no sun. No earth or wind, neither was there water, nor fire, nor any other thing. There was only possibility, and all the things that might yet be.”
The old Kaarme smiled. “But then,” his fingers snapped, a sharp sudden pop to emphasize his words, “in an instant form itself found form, in a cataclysmic detonation of expanding matter. In this way, the universe as we know it was born.
“Now, as I said, before there was matter there was Nothing, the great and empty void, and thus the Nothing did not realize that it was, for there was no other thing against which it could perceive itself. But then came matter, and thence came change, and the Nothing-”
“The Enemy,” hissed the boy, scowling as he cut in, “the Dark.”
“No, sade,” he tapped a claw lightly against the youth’s snout, “Fire and Ice, Energy and Water, Wind and Earth, Light and, yes, even Dark, these are the elements of life, the agents of matter. What we call the Darkener is an operative of the Enemy, but that is only a title, a way of speaking about a thing that is inimical to us. The Enemy is the Nothing, literally the No-Thing, the… Un-ness.
“Now, the Un-ness saw matter, yes, but for the first time too It saw Itself. And for many ages it was stunned, concerned only with Its contemplation of Itself, with the perfection of Its absolute unchangingness.
“And as the Nothing contemplated Itself, life took hold. There was green life, the life of growing things, be that in the sea, on the earth, or even beneath it. There was the red life, the life of the beasts and birds of field, forest, stream, and sky. And there was the silver life, that life which the Elements loved best of all.”
“The Light!” The boy interrupted again, exuberant.
“Aye, my boy,” the old Kaarme said, chuckling, “the Light loved our people, and we received its blessing. That was what saved us, in the end.
“You see, the Nothing arose from Its introspection and saw not only matter in its infinite profusion, but life as well. And it was life that It hated, more than anything else. Life, It saw, was change, and to the Un-ness, change was anathema. To Itself, It was perfect, without flaw. Matter is always changing, even the unliving matter that was the basest elements.
“But here the Nothing was vexed, for to eradicate life entirely, It would have to take a form, embrace matter. Yet to do so, to Its mind, would be to demean Itself, shackling Itself to that which It hated by binding Itself to space and time and matter so that It might unleash all Its terrible power. But the Un-ness would not do this, and so for an age It pondered how It might overthrow change without Itself being subject to it.
“At long last, the Enemy found its answer. Gathering to Itself Its power, the Nothing cast a shadow-”
“But grandfather, you just said the Darkness is not the Enemy!”
The aged Kaarme Phry smiled, “Aye, sade, and you are right. This was not a shadow as we know it, but there is no other word that might suffice. The Nothing cast Its influence across the universe like a seed; a seed of corruption that took root and bloomed into a disastrous tree whose fruit was blight, tribulation, and sorrow.” Sighing, the old man looked down at hands scarred and battered by the long years of his life. “Yet, there were ever those who were willing to eat that blackened fruit. Perhaps they hoped for power, perhaps they hoped for wealth, perhaps they hoped to recreate the universe in their image, or perhaps they were simply rotten to the core, like that fruit. It matters not, for in the end all tyrants are the same... And so it was that the War of Form began, and the acolytes of the Un-ness sought to mar and unmake. Among them was the entity we would come to know as the Darkener.
“But they were not unopposed. The Elements blessed their chosen, and from among the chosen arose those with the power to combat the acolytes of Nothing. For ages the War of Form has raged, with the Elements and the Nothing doing battle through their champions. And when the Darkener came to blight our world, it found the Sun Guard waiting.”
“Like father.” The young Kaarme said suddenly, quietly.
“Aye, like your father…” For a time the two were silent, remembering. “Your father was the bravest man I ever knew sade. He brought that out in others too, and there is so very much of him in you...” He sighed. “I think it would be best if you go to sleep now. We will continue the story another night.” Leaning forward, the old man kissed his grandson’s forehead and then stood, turning for the door.
“Grandfather,” the boy called after his elder, his voice solemn, “do you think… Do you think if the sword had been finished…”
The aged Kaarme Phry paused, silhouetted in the light of the open door. His voice was tired, as quiet as that of his charge. “There is not a doubt in my mind, my boy.”
Valo Aurinko had loved the story as a boy. Grown now, he clung to it with the intensity of a shipwrecked man to the largest bit of intact wood he could find. It was a light in the darkness, a guiding star just glimpsed on a clouded night.
The Kaarme Phry stood, taloned feet shoulder-width apart, the right half a step ahead of the left; in his hands Leikata glimmered, with his right hand gripped beneath its guard while the left reached across his body to hold just above the pommel. The sword hummed softly, an oddly comforting vibration just felt through the grip. He had never been able to tell why the sword did that, and the truth was it did not as often as it did. His grandfather could have explained it, Aurinko felt certain of that, but the humming was just a noise to him - a nearly sub-aural background noise that sometimes accompanied his swordwork.
Leikata’s blade was charged to Dawn’s Vengeance, a soft white curve of light whose emanations very faintly pulsed around him. Aurinko held the weapon at a slight angle, its length pointing up and back over his right shoulder. The first position, Sentry’s Watch. The thought drew a sad smile to the Kaarme Phry’s lips. Sentry’s Watch, a meaningless gesture in this place; it was a formal guardian stance for a threat unimaginably removed from Bren and its environs. And yet training will out, as they said back home. Some things went deep, wore their way into blood and bone and being. Back home there had always been a Sun Guard standing watch. It had been Aurinko more often than not, because the attacks always came at dawn.
Dawn… Was there a crueler joke to be found in any world? Calling what they had back home “dawn” was like standing on a pile of dirt and calling it a mountain. But here… Here the sun came up blazing red as though ready to fight, lightening by shades through orange to yellow, until it was a brilliant white disc in the heavens. Aurinko lowered Leikata, tilting his head up and closing his eyes, simply basking in the radiance pouring down from the distant star as it warmed the scales of his face. Hard to imagine that-
“What are you doing up here?”
The Kaarme opened his eyes, and turned slightly as he returned the sword to its sheath, feeling the faint crackling discharge as the blade’s photonic energy dissipated. His right hand rose to check the bandage about his left arm, tugging gently to ensure it was still tight and secure. Before answering, Aurinko took a moment to inspect the child before him.
She was a thin thing, clad in a worn and patched tunic, along with equally battered trousers. Her feet were bare, tough and dirt-blackened, and clear blue eyes stared suspiciously at him from beneath a thatch of wildly tangled auburn hair. “Well?”
His smile displayed a number of sharp fangs, though the urchin seemed unimpressed by the sight. In contrast to the child - an elf if the pointed tips of the ears sticking out of her hair were any indication - Aurinko was well garbed in a loose white shirt and black pants so baggy that more than one local had mistaken the garment for a skirt on first glance. The Kaarme had forgone his armor today, an unforgivable offense for a Sun Guard who had had all night to prepare, but the protection was hardly necessary here. At his waist was a wide cloth belt, through which a pair of sheathes, one for Leikata and one for Pelastaa, were thrust. He set a hand to the hilts riding at his left hip as he finally replied. “I am standing guard.”
The child regarded this intruder into what she obviously considered her domain with wary disbelief. “On the roof of the inn?”
Aurinko chuckled, taking a moment to glance out over the edge of the roof to the town of Bren spreading out below. It was a large inn, three stories in fact, thrusting its way up from the street and above the other nearby structures like a soldier standing at attention. “It has a good view of the surrounding area.”
“Well, yeah, but what are you going to do if there’s trouble? You’d have to climb down before you could help.”
The Kaarme looked at the girl, his expression as serious as his tone. “True. I suppose I would have to leap from the roof then.”
“That seems… stupid. You’d break your legs.”
Aurinko grinned, tapping a taloned foot against the wooden shingles covering the slanted roof. “If I landed poorly, yes. Still, the fall is quite survivable, if you know how to land correctly.” In truth, there was nothing on the ground a Sun Guard needed to fear, not initially. The servants of the Lighteater always descended from the sky. He laughed at the girl’s expression. “Believe me or not, rikka, but I have done similar before.”
“That’s not my name.” The girl replied, crossing her arms over her chest and fixing the Kaarme Phry with a surprisingly fierce glare.
“So it is not, rikka, but you never offered me your name. Mine is Aurinko, by the way, and it would be rude to simply call you girl, no? Now, perhaps you will tell me what you are doing up here. Shouldn’t you be breaking your fast, or perhaps still safely asleep in your bed?”
That brought a wary look to the elf child’s eye, and she glanced back over her shoulder to the edge of the roof she had scrabbled over. It was clear she was considering a quick exit back the way she had come from.
“Ah,” Aurinko said quietly, considering the girl for a long moment before sitting gracefully, pushing down on the hilts of his blades to angle the sheathes up and out of the way, though their tips still scraped softly across the wooden covering of the roof. The Kaarme Phry lightly patted the shingles next to him, smiling gently at the calculating look on the child’s face. “I am not unfamiliar with hard times rikka. I am an orphan myself.”
The elf child chewed her lip for a moment, and then sat as well, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Rana. My name is Rana.” She hesitated, and then asked quietly, “How did you know?”
Running a hand along his snout, the swordsman vacillated a moment over his answer. He could have told her it was a guess, and it had been in part. But she was thin and dirty, and the patches on her clothing were worn, their stitching uneven, childish in a way. And for a moment, before she had looked towards the edge of the roof, Aurinko had seen a flash of emotion in her eyes. It had not been the fear of being caught out playing truant when she was supposed to be home.
No, the look in her eyes had been the quiet determination of the survivor, the calculus and evaluation of one used to relying on swift feet rather than assistance from authority. The Kaarme knew the look. He had worn it. “I never knew my mother, and my father was slain in a battle defending our city. I was lucky, I suppose. My grandfather found me and took me away, to his home. But the war followed us.” Aurinko was silent for a long moment, recalling blood, the screams of dying men, and smoke choking the pale orb hanging above burning cities. His thumb rubbed over the end of Leikata’s grip. “After that I was on my own.”
Rana looked away, her voice as small as she was. “Sometimes… sometimes it isn’t so bad.”
“And sometimes it is.”
The girl glanced up at the Kaarme Phry, hesitating for a moment. “But it… gets better, right?”
Aurinko did not answer immediately, tilting his head back and closing his eyes, feeling the rays of the sun on his scales. One hand opened the pouch at his waist, withdrawing a heavy gold sovereign. The coin rang faintly as the swordsman’s thumb popped beneath it, sending it flipping end over end skyward. Opening his eyes, the Kaarme caught the coin deftly, rolling it out between his thumb and forefinger, holding it as if measuring the golden disk against the distant celestial orb. “I won’t lie to you, rikka. The bad times get fewer, farther apart, but I don’t know if they ever really go away.”
Rising to his feet, Aurinko glanced down at the street below as he moved to the edge of the roof. “But I’ll tell you something my grandfather used to tell me,” he flicked the coin at the girl, grinning over his shoulder as she snatched it from the air just as dexterously as he had, “everything is easier to face on a full stomach.”
Rana turned the coin over in her hands, inspecting the unfamiliar markings stamped on it. “But this is..”
“Enough for several full stomachs, aye.” Aurinko smiled. “Take care of yourself, Rana.”
And then the Kaarme Phry jumped off the roof.
Twisting in the air, the swordsman reached out and caught the lip of the gutter, which creaked alarmingly at the sudden weight placed upon it. With a practiced, eel-like snap of his lower body Aurinko threw his weight forward with the swing, released the gutter, and angled both legs straight out, allowing the momentum to launch his body through the open window below the roofline. Flicking his heavy tail to slightly alter his aerodynamics, the Kaarme turned a partial lateral roll midair and landed, talons skidding slightly against the wooden floorboards of his room.
“Aurinko!” There was a scrabbling from above as Rana slid down the roof, clinging to the gutter as she peered down into the room, her hair falling into her eyes for a moment. “You... You could have been hurt!”
The Kaarme Phry glanced in the girl’s direction as he removed his sash, depositing his sheathed blades on the bed. Lifting the dou hanging from a nearby chair, Aurinko shrugged into the armor, doing up the straps with the ease of long practice. “I suppose I could have, rikka, and it would not have been the first time either. But here I am.” He winked at the girl while pulling a binding tight.
“Ugh, and adults say that kids are reckless.”
“So we do,” replied the swordsman, “because they often are.” Retrieving his kusazuri from the chair as well, Aurinko slung it around his hips before starting on the second set of ties. “But so are we, when it comes right down to it.”
“If you were standing guard before, why weren’t you wearing all this armor?”
Chuckling softly, the Kaarme lifted his weapon belt, wrapping the crimson silk around his waist several times and giving his sheathed blades a last automatic adjustment. “Some habits are hard to break.” He cast a glance at the elven child, who looked mystified at the meaning of that answer. Aurinko only smiled again, drawing a length of white silk from his pack. He removed the old bandage, checking his left arm quickly before binding the new length of cloth about his limb and settling a hand on Pelastaa’s hilt. “Now, I have business at the complex, so I will wish you a good day.”
Rana blinked, hesitating for a moment as she inspected the now armored swordsman and made the natural conclusions. “Good luck, Aurinko. Be careful.”
“As best I can, rikka. As best I can.”
Aurinko moved smoothly through the crowds funneling into the complex, following the signs indicating the way to the Cellar Arena. His thoughts were vague, preoccupied musings, touching lightly against his perception before fluttering away. The Kaarme Phry turned, slipping out of the press of spectators flowing towards their seats, and angled his steps towards the door marked out as the path for entrants. An official detained him only for the moment necessary to check the swordsman’s name against the list of registered competitors, and to direct his gaze to the words inscribed in the stone mantle above the ingress.
Some manner of magic to interdict healing. That simply meant that Aurinko would need to exercise appropriate caution when using Leikata. Nodding his thanks to the official, the Kaarme continued forward, descending the spiraling stairs to another set of halls deeper within the complex. That path terminated in a metal gate, where the swordsman and his fellow competitors waited; it hissed open with a puff of water vapor, and there was a general shuffling forward as Aurinko and the others moved into a smaller compartment barred by another gate. More cattle pen than foyer… The errant thought drifted away.
Once inside, the Kaarme Phry pressed lightly on the hilts of his blades, angling their sheathes up as he knelt gracefully and swept his gaze over each rival entrant in turn. Resting his hands palm down on his knees, Aurinko drew in a deep breath, holding it as he closed his eyes and sought out the calm and quiet within that would serve as the balance for the impending chaos without.
this scent of cherry blossoms
a wind fair and free.
Distantly, the swordsman was aware of the gate behind him closing, a gentle pneumatic hiss that matched his own exhalation as he expelled the breath and soft darkness embraced the miniature foyer.
that pale, shrunken conniver.
Lift thy blade.
Light pulsed faintly against the Kaarme’s eyelids as the way forward opened with a sibilant whoosh of mechanical movement. The illumination was accompanied by a buzz, felt through his knees and down his legs, heard as a subtly dissonant tone of no discernable source. Aurinko’s reptilian eyes slid open to calmly consider the pristine Arena before them: white walls, mirrors, pillars with cycling threads of light. He drew one breath and then another, consciously timing each to the rhythm established by those spinning strands of illumination.
His voice was calm, his enunciation precise, a verbal mirror of the quiet perfection before him. “And by this drawing grant that I may cast a little light. And by that casting grant that I may drive back the night.”
Aurinko rose to his feet, pacing into the arid embrace of the Cellar’s warmth and light. His right hand fell to Leikata’s hilt as he turned left from the entrance and angled towards the nearest pillar. The blade shard came free with a soft scrape of metal against leather, then rose and lightly brushed his left arm. With the whisper of scale parting beneath steel, and without the slightest sign of discomfort, the Kaarme Phry drew a careful wound across the limb, just long enough to wet Leikata’s remnant shard along half its length.
Pushing the silk band around his arm down to cover the shallow cut, Aurinko tugged it tight as he turned back to face the entryway. The wound would continue to bleed, but the silk would at least prevent it from leaking freely. Flicking his right wrist gently, the swordsman scattered droplets of blood from the shard, which was now ever so slightly humming a counterpoint to the Arena’s buzzing background tone. “And by this sacrifice grant that I may fulfill Dawn’s Promise to us all.”